Higher education has been in a parlous state for some time now, and the higher you go up the food chain, degree-wise, the more parlous it is. Although Loren Mayshark’s experience is unusually bad, it is symptomatic of the kinds of problems that grad students can expect to face, and is a cautionary tale for what to avoid if you do decide to get a graduate degree.
Mayshark decided he wanted to get an MA in Latin American history in order to teach at the college level. An MA would only qualify him for adjuncting at best, which is a terrible career path, so there was problem #1. He applied to a number of programs, despite having low GRE scores, and was only admitted into one, at Hunter College in the CUNY system, and only as a non-matriculated student. He spent the next 6 years being jerked around by faculty and staff as he attempted to finish the program and get a degree.
In something like this, it’s easy to point fingers and say he shouldn’t have done what he did, and indeed, I would not advise anyone who struggles with testing and has low GRE scores, or who can’t get into any decent programs as a fully matriculated student, to go to grad school. Not because the GRE is that important in the grand scheme of things, or measures your worth as a person, but because indeed, the ability to do this kind of standardized testing and hoop-jumping is an important component of being able to get through grad school. If Mayshark had come to me at that point for advice (FYI: I have a PhD and work in higher education), I would have told him to go back to bartending or anything other than higher ed, because that was a sign that higher ed was not going to be a welcoming profession for him.
That being said, Hunter College and the CUNY system, which by the way, are supposed to be pretty lousy places both to work and to study, as evidenced by, for example, their egregious use of adjuncts and general mistreatment of their faculty, exploited Mayshark and strung him along for years, in part because of systemic problems with the college, in part because of personality issues with individual faculty.
They advertised a degree, and admitted him into a degree program, that it turned out they were not actually able to offer. The adjunct faculty were not allowed to work with him on his exams and thesis, and indeed were often sent on their merry way before he had finished the program, and the tenured faculty had little interest in working with him and were often actively obstructive. He was failed twice on his comprehensive exams but not allowed to work with professors to prepare for them, and the reasons giving for his failure were things such as “poor paragraphing” in a handwritten, timed test. Then they decided not to require that he pass the exams at all, but could go straight to writing his thesis, only no one wanted to work with him. When he finally found an advisor, that person made him rewrite his first chapter 8 (!) times, again complaining about paragraphing and other trivialities. Eventually, after 6 years and thousands of dollars, Mayshark quit and left the country, which he probably should have done years earlier.
Mayshark’s experience, although particularly egregious, is not unusual: most universities have a cumbersome bureaucracy that students struggle to navigate, and that often hits them with unexpected fees and obstacles, and many of them have a culture of mistreating students. Many professors, like those Mayshark encountered, confuse “rigor” with judging students according to very specific criteria that they can not define or explain, and force graduate students in particular to rewrite their projects again and again according to random whims, while refusing to meet with them or read their work in a timely fashion. Although one wants to think of the academia as a place of free intellectual inquiry, in fact, American higher ed in general is a highly exploitative system with a strong culture of hazing and bullying. Mayshark just happened to be caught up in a perfect storm.
Not everyone who goes to grad school will have such a negative experience, but pretty much everyone will encounter some level of these kinds of problems, so prospective grad students may want to read this in order to prepare themselves and know what kind of pitfalls to avoid and when to cut their losses.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.